September 23, 2010
Pointing dogs and flushers team up for bobs In Georgia's pinewoods.
The main lodge at Quail Country Plantation is one of rustic elegance.
I DIDN'T HAVE to have my arm twisted. Any Midwestern bird hunter who lived through the winter of 2007-2008--without question one of the longest, coldest, iciest, snowiest and generally most miserable winters in decades--would have jumped at the chance to travel to Georgia in late February to hunt quail.
Add to this the facts that I would be enjoying first-class accommodations at a newly refurbished lodge and hunting over topnotch pointing dogs (with a bonus, I'd soon discover) and shooting a new Premier over/under shotgun on loan from Remington, plus counting the manager as a personal friend and knowing him to be a gracious host and'¦well, as the teenagers used to say, I was SO there.
The Name, the History, the Land
Specifically, my destination was Quail Country Plantation, owned by Paschal and Kay Brooks and managed by Bill E. Bowles. The plantation is located near the town of Arlington in that region nicknamed "SOWEGA" (pronounced So-WEE-ga, not So-wee-ja), the local abbreviation for Southwest Georgia.
"When folks would ask about the meaning of 'SOWEGA,' Mr. Tommy Newberry, the plantation's original owner, would occasionally tell them that it was an old Indian word meaning 'land of many quail,'" Bill told me over dinner on my first evening there.
"Although Mr. Newberry was joking, it was an appropriate explanation," Bill said, adding that the operation was originally called SOWEGA Hunt Club when Newberry founded it in 1960.
Totaling more than 3,500 acres, the plantation is unique in another respect--the corners of Baker, Calhoun and Early counties meet on the property, hence its additional nickname of "Land of Three Counties."
And beautiful land it is, with its combination of loblolly and slash pines, liveoaks, wiregrass and sandy tracks winding throughout. The lake just behind the lodge at Quail Country is flooded cypress timber draped with Spanish moss, providing a most picturesque view from the lodge's dining room windows.
Bud points and Sage backs--what a great way to start the morning!
Of course, I'd come to do more than admire the scenery, and following a hearty breakfast the next morning--have I mentioned the lodge's superb Southern cooking?--I headed out to hunt quail. Bill had informed me the night before that Matt Dollar would be my guide, and I was looking forward to seeing Matt again, as he had guided me on another Georgia quail hunt a couple years earlier and I knew him to be both an extremely capable dog handler and a very likable guy.
The Guns, the Guides and the Dogs
My hunt actually got off to a less than auspicious start, due to the fact that the airline had temporarily "misplaced" the Remington Premier I'd brought with me on the flight down...or thought I'd brought with me, anyway.
Arriving in Atlanta at three in the afternoon, I wound up hanging around the airport for nearly two hours waiting for the gun to show up in the special baggage area. I finally convinced a desk worker to go look for it, and when she returned she told me she'd learned that the gun had been put on a later flight and wouldn't arrive until nine that evening.
I was reluctant to leave the airport without the gun, but with nine o'clock still four hours away and faced with a 3-1/2-hour drive to the plantation, I felt I needed to be on my way. I explained my situation and the desk clerk took the information on where I would be staying and promised they would courier the gun down to the lodge the next morning.
I left the airport full of doubts--and praying I would not have to tell Remington's Linda Powell that I'd promptly lost the new gun she had just sent me on loan--but figured I would keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.
The kennels are state of the art.
Matt Dollar was just as I remembered him--tall and soft-spoken, with an easy grin. We shook hands and exchanged greetings and loaded up in his jeep, which was equipped with several dog boxes and an extra set of seats above and behind the driver and passenger seats, plus another two seats mounted on a platform above the front bumper. On this platform sat a keen looking liver and white springer spaniel, obviously eager to get the hunt underway.
"We'll be putting down a brace of pointing dogs plus Daq," Matt explained as we headed out. I asked him to repeat the springer's name, thinking he'd said Zack and wanting to make sure I'd heard it correctly. "Daq'¦short for Daiquiri," Matt said with a grin. "He has a sister named Margarita."
I laughed and asked if Daq was primarily along to handle the retrieving duties. "He does a lot of the retrieving, but we also use our flushing dogs to get the birds up after the pointers find them," Matt replied, and my interest heightened. Although I'd read and heard about this practice, this would be the first time I would actually have an opportunity to hunt quail in such a manner.
We drove for maybe 10 minutes into the heart of a tract of pinewoods before Matt stopped the jeep on the sandy track. "We'll start here," he said.
Son backs Wilma on point in a swamp.
Classy and Classic
For the first brace of the morning, Matt put down a handsome orange and white setter named Bud and a trim little female German shorthair named Sage. The pointing dogs cast out into the cover--traditional pinewoods and wire grass--and Daq quartered busily in front of us. It wasn't long before Bud locked up and Sage honored.
Daq stopped also, docked tail quivering, and I couldn't keep from grinning. This was one of those classic you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it moments, and
I was experiencing it firsthand. "Very nice!" I said, impressed with the control all three dogs were exhibiting.
I dropped two shells into the CG and snapped it closed. As I moved in cautiously Matt told Daq, "Get up, get up!" and the springer hustled in and put the covey to flight. I swung and fired twice and managed to drop a bird with my second shot. Daq raced out and made the retrieve.
Daq the springer delivers a quail to guide Matt Dollar.
"That was just about as slick an operation as anything I've ever seen," I told Matt, and he grinned and said, "Yes, sir'¦thanks." He took the bob from Daq and slipped it into the pocket of his vest, and Bud and Sage moved on to work the singles.
The weather was ideal, sunny and cool. We made a big loop through the woods, adding several more birds to the bag and eventually working our way back to the jeep, where Matt watered the three dogs before putting up Bud and Sage. We then drove deeper into the woods and Matt released the second brace of the morning, a pair of almost pure white setters named Cotton and Wilma.
"We always put orange collars on our male dogs and green collars on our females," Matt commented, and looking at this brace, I immediately understood one of the advantages of this practice--although they otherwise would have been hard to distinguish at a distance, the different colored collars worn by Cotton and Wilma made it easy to tell at a glance which was which.
Guide and dog trainer Randy Hickman with a Quail Country setter.
Like Bud and Sage, Cotton and Wilma made fairly wide, sweeping casts through the pines. Their white coats were highly visible, even at a distance of several hundred yards, and they too were quickly locked up on another covey.
We moved in and again I enjoyed watching Daq do the work of putting up the birds, one of which I dropped. I was quickly getting spoiled by this program, and I said so to Matt. He smiled appreciatively as Daq brought in my single. The Caesar Guerini handled nicely and swung like a dream, but I'll admit I've slowed down in my'¦uh'¦middle age, and shooting a double on a covey rise was something that would ultimately elude me this trip.
After Cotton and Wilma had been down for about 45 minutes, we again made our way back to the jeep. At the next stop, Matt put down a small Brittany named Sadie, whom he identified as his own personal dog--not from the plantation's kennels, in other words. Sadie proved to be a mover in her own right, zipping through the cover like a little orange and white comet, and every bit as adept at finding birds as her larger counterparts.
We finished out the morning with Bud, the setter we'd run in the first brace, teamed with Ace, a black and white pointer. Matt referred to Ace as a "Rip Rap dog," and I smiled at the reference to the legendary field trial winner who'd lent his name to all pointers of subsequent generations that shared his color scheme.
My Own Gun and More Fun
We returned to the lodge for lunch, and I was pleased to learn that the airline had made good on its promise and flown my missing shotgun to the nearby Albany airport, where it had been picked up and delivered to the lodge by Bill Bowles' son, Bill II. I was looking forward to trying out the new Premier.
After lunch I got my chance. Matt and I returned to the woods, this time with a small black and tan English cocker named Barney along to handle the flushing duties. We used the same pointing dogs for our afternoon braces that we'd used that morning with the addition of another all-white setter named Babe, and I was happy to discover that the Remington Premier performed as well as I had hoped it would (see sidebar).
General waits for Randy Hickman's command to flush the birds pointed by Wilma and Son.
We wound up the day by visiting an old cemetery plot that Matt knew of on the property. It was tucked back in a grove of huge spreading liveoaks, and we spent a little time trying to make out the inscriptions on the weathered, moss-covered headstones, noting that many of the people buried there had died very young. But not all of them--one stone gave the birth date as 1797 and said the person buried there was aged 74 years when he died.
Driving back to the lodge, we wondered aloud what life must have been like for those early settlers, what the land had looked like back then, and whether any of them had hunted quail.
New Day, New Dog, New Guide
My second and final morning at the lodge I was guided by Randy Hickman, who trains many of the plantation's dogs. Like Matt, Randy is a born dog handler and a very likable fellow, with the kind of laid-back air about him that immediately puts shooters at ease.
The Remington Premier over/under 20 gauge handled nicely and made it easy for the author to reward the dogs' efforts.
We again hunted with a brace of pointing dogs and a flusher, but this time the latter was a handsome, strapping young black Labrador named General. He fit the program perfectly because some of the area we hunted that morning was decidedly on the wet side--one of our first finds had both setters standing hock deep in water, pointing a covey that had settled in a big blowdown in the middle of a swamp.
After snapping several pictures, I laughed and asked, "Am I gonna have to get my feet wet to get a shot at those birds?"
"No, sir, " Randy replied. "That's why we've got General!" He waited until I got myself set at the edge of the swamp, then he sent the Lab in to roust the covey.
The water flew as the big black dog charged toward the blowdown. When the birds got up I took my customary two shots to drop a single, which fell with a splash at the far edge of the swamp.
"It was worth flying halfway across the country just to be a part of that," I said as General bounded out of the swamp and delivered my quail to Randy.
Over Too Soon
We finished out the morning with a father-son brace of tricolored setters named Son (full name, Son of Beethoven) and Trey (as in, Beethoven the Third). Before we left the jeep Randy explained that Trey was still green and might not hold his birds too well, but Randy said if I wouldn't mind he wanted to let Trey get a little experience on some of the singles we had scattered in the woods.
I assured Randy there was nothing I liked better than watching a young dog figure out how to "put it all together" on birds. And what a treat it was to watch Trey and his sire hunt the pinewoods together. While Son was definitely the more polished performer, Trey found his share of the singles and both dogs held their birds well. What's more, the shooter even managed to knock down a fair number of them to reward the dogs' efforts.
Our hunt ended at lunchtime, as I was due to drive back to Atlanta that afternoon. It goes without saying that I happily would have stayed for several more days if I could have done so, and I certainly wasn't eager to return to the Iowa winter.
When I mentioned this to Bill Bowles as we were saying our goodbyes, he smiled and said, "Well, Rick, you'll just have to plan to come on down again next year when you need to get away from all that snow and cold weather."
Like I said at the outset, I won't have to have my arm twisted.